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Turning waste heat from a pulp mill into millions of cucumbers

A history of environmental sustainability

In 1989, the small city of Saint-Félicien, Quebec, faced a problem of what to do with wood waste from the local sawmills, referred to as residuals – low-quality biomass with little apparent value. After some consideration, the town decided to turn the residuals into valuable electricity. By 1996, it had built a biomass-powered cogeneration power plant, providing electricity for 23,000 homes; steam for a sawmill’s wood dryers; waste ash for agricultural soil improvements; and hot water for local agricultural energy needs.

Aerial view of the Toundra greenhouse.
The Toundra greenhouse complex.

A vision of the future

This northern Quebec city of 10,000 residents was not finished with forest-based sustainable development. In 2014 Saint-Félicien teamed up with Eric Dubé, the Fradet Family, and Resolute Forest Products. This partnership built one of the largest greenhouse complexes in Quebec: the cutting-edge Toundra Greenhouse. The goal of Toundra Greenhouse was to help Quebec become a more self-sufficient producer of vegetables, thereby reducing imports from outside the province and helping build a more resilient supply chain. The design of the greenhouse is centred around using residuals – in this case, water and CO2 – from the adjacent Resolute Forest Products pulp mill in Saint-Félicien to offset the vast energy requirements of a large greenhouse. The concept of using greenhouses to grow vegetables might not be revolutionary, but the Toundra complex – with its focus on re-using waste as valuable inputs and innovative technology – is part of an accelerating larger transition to a circular economy.

The circular economy represents a combination of actions that are transforming our linear economy, which takes, makes and then tosses away. In a circular economy, waste is designed out of production processes; materials are kept in use for longer; and natural cycles are restored. In Saint-Félicien, circular economy activities were realized through new business relationships and investments that valued the residuals of one production process and used them as inputs into another.

Because the inputs – residuals – are renewable and sustainably managed, and the outputs – vegetables – are compostable, the circular economy supports natural cycles, including nutrient recycling and carbon management. When the circular economy uses organic materials, it becomes a circular bioeconomy.

Overall, the circular bioeconomy is an emerging growth sector for Quebec’s and Canada’s economies and is an important part of Canada’s national and international commitments, such as the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Montréal Process.

Turning heat and carbon dioxide into cucumbers

By December 2016, the Toundra Greenhouse complex had completed its first stage of construction, covering 8.5 hectares (ha), producing millions of cucumbers a year, and employing more than 100 workers. At the end of 2020, the greenhouse complex will complete its second stage of construction, covering 19 hectares and employing over 150 people. The adjacent pulp mill’s heat residuals will provide 25% of the greenhouse’s heating requirements, reducing the greenhouse’s energy costs. The mill will also be able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions at rate equivalent to taking over 2,000 vehicles off the road per year.

Illustration of a factory with two smokestacks representing the years 2007 and 2017. The difference in their size represents the change in greenhouse gas emissions between the two years.
Text version

Illustration of a factory with two smokestacks of different sizes. The smokestacks represent the years 2007 and 2017. The difference in their size represents the change in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions between the two years. Between 2007 and 2017, total GHG emissions decreased by 42%.

Using carbon capture technology, Toundra Greenhouse will also collect up to 30 tonnes of CO2 per day from the pulp mill to use for controlled injection into the greenhouse to enhance photosynthesis and optimize production. And in keeping with its commitment to environmental sustainability, 98% of the used water is recuperated for re-use; no pesticides are used; all the vehicles in the greenhouse are electric; and all the hydraulic systems use vegetable oil.

Far-reaching implications

Toundra Greenhouse is the most technologically advanced greenhouse complex in Canada, using sensors and automation to supply light and nutrients to the plants. It is also one of the most productive greenhouses in Canada.

SUBWAY® has a contract to supply all 850 of its restaurants in Quebec and Eastern Canada with Toundra’s cucumbers, and Sobeys Québec purchases enough cucumbers to supply 420 locations in Quebec. Producing food locally is an important aspect of the Canadian market, which relies heavily on food imports. More locally produced food contributes to a more sustainable and resilient food supply chain as well as local jobs and investment.

Cucumbers growing on a vine in the Toundra greenhouse.
Cucumber vines in the Toundra greenhouse.

In recognition of this outstanding success, Toundra Greenhouse was awarded Quebec’s prestigious Mercure business award for sustainable development. But the success of the project has much broader implications. It is an excellent example of how projects can bring together circular bioeconomy activities with other strategies, such as digitization and carbon management, to create local, low-carbon and sustainable development opportunities for forest communities all across Canada.

Sources and information
Photo credit
  • Photos credit of Toundra Greenhouse.

This article is from The State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report 2020. Download the PDF version from our publications database.

Table of contents — The State of Canada's Forests Report

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